An unprecedented number of hand, foot and mouth disease outbreaks have hit the US and beyond, leaving many families in a panic. Here’s all you need to know about the highly contagious disease and the best ways to reduce your risk of developing an outbreak.
Hand, foot and mouth disease is a highly communicable viral illness that usually infects infants and children under the age of five. However, the viral infection can also affect teens and adults, especially in areas where a rampant outbreak is present. The illness is uncomfortable and comes with serious symptoms, but it very rarely leads to further health complications or death.
Symptoms: Hand, foot and mouth disease usually starts with a fever, sore throat, reduced appetite and general feeling of malaise. One to two days after sickness sets in, painful sores in the mouth called herpangina may develop. They usually appear in the back of the mouth as small red blisters that can grow into large ulcers. Dehydration may set in, due to difficulties swallowing. A skin rash of red spots may also develop on the hands and feet, which can sometimes appear on the elbows, knees, buttocks and genital area, as well.
The incubation period is three to six days. This means it will take a person about that long to develop symptoms after being exposed to the disease. However, not everyone develops symptoms. In fact, some parents may contract the disease from their children and won’t even know it.
Causes: Hand, foot and mouth disease is caused by a variety of viruses in the Entovirus genus. They include polioviruses, coxsackieviruses, echoviruses, and enteroviruses. The most common cause is the coxsackievirus A16.
Transmission: Hand, foot and mouth disease can be spread through nose and throat secretions, blister fluid and feces. This means that it can be transmitted from one person to another through the air (via coughing and sneezing), contact with contaminated surfaces, contact with feces, and through close personal contact such as kissing.
People that have been infected are the most contagious during the first week of illness. However, patients are still contagious for days or even weeks after their symptoms subside. That means that anyone who develops the disease should be cautious and maintain good hygiene so as to help eliminate the spread to others. Experts recommend staying home while you are sick, frequently washing your hands and limiting your exposure to others.
Treatment: Because it is a virus, doctors currently have no way to treat the desease. However, symptoms can be relieved with over the counter pain medication, drinking plenty of fluids and using mouth numbing sprays. Symptoms typically last about a week to 10 days.
Complications: Hand, foot and mouth disease very rarely causes complications. However, it can lead to serious neurological and cardiac problems that can cause death if an infection doesn’t properly clear up. Be sure to visit your health care provider if a case of hand, foot and mouth disease lingers for more than two weeks.
It is unclear why, but some children lose fingernails and toenails following an HFMD infection (especially those caused by coxsackievirus A16).
Hand, foot and mouth disease can sometimes cause viral or aseptic meningitis. Symptoms of this condition include fever, headache, and stiff muscles in the back, neck and shoulders.
Because it can be spread through the air, preventing hand, foot and mouth disease is difficult. However, it is not impossible. The following tips can help you and your family to avoid contracting the disease:
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- Both you and your children should wash your hands often with soap and warm water, especially after using the restroom and changing children’s diapers.
- Frequently clean and disinfect household surfaces such as countertops, door handles, floors, toilets, and diaper changing tables.
- Frequently clean and disinfect children’s toys.
- Try to avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes as much as possible. Many cases of infection come from touching an infected surface (like a door handle, for example) and then touching your face.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick with hand, foot and mouth disease. This includes hugging, kissing and sharing things like lip balm, straws, utensils, towels, toys, etc.
- There is currently no vaccine against hand, foot and mouth disease. However, scientists are working on developing a vaccine.
- The desease usually occurs in small epidemics such as in a household or in a classroom environment. However, sometimes an epidemic can spread though an entire town or region. This is especially true in Asia, where outbreaks are most common.
- The disease is most common during warm, summer months and early fall.
- Hand, foot and mouth disease is not transmitted to or from pets or other animals.
- Hand, foot and mouth disease is often confused with foot and mouth disease, which is a viral infection that affects livestock. The two conditions are not the same thing, so please be careful about following the proper health care advice for each of the two viral infections.
- For more about HFMD, read Footfile's in-depth Wiki article on the disease.